A spirit of freedom and adventure infuse the creations of woodwork artist Elise Cameron-Smith. Best known for her miniature boats, the 25-year-old avoids designing by computer or calculation, preferring instead to create by hand and eye. “Most of my work is kind of spontaneous,” says Elise, from her rustic studio in Wollongong, 90 minutes south of Sydney. “There are no templates or calculated radiuses – I simply draw a line with a pencil and cut to that line.”
Elise’s journey as a designer has been equally intuitive. In 2010, after starting a design course in Sydney, she found herself frustrated with the emphasis on technology. “Visualising something and then making it on a computer is really difficult for me,” she explains. “I have to physically do things to learn them.” A part-time woodwork course led to her “snap decision” to enrol at Sturt, a contemporary craft and design school in Mittagong in the NSW Southern Highlands. “It was never a plan, it just felt like a good thing to do,” she recalls.
Following her studies, Elise moved to the south coast to take up a 12-month part-time traineeship with furniture-maker Leon Sadubin. “I learnt so much,” she says. “His work is really amazing.” Elise later worked part-time glassing surfboards but now devotes all her time to creating her own pieces. Days start at 7am in the workshop, where she dons her King Gee overalls and gets to work shaping and sanding.
“I guess what I’m really doing is making sculpture, but also making it fun and accessible”Elise
Afternoons are spent on “the fun jobs” such as penning the little poems that accompany each of her boats and fixing sails. “The boats have been something I’ve been working on over the past few years,” says Elise of the ethereal, teardrop-shaped vessels she sells through her website. “My inspiration comes from storybooks, fairy tales and the natural environment, and boats are just that metaphor for a journey; you’re going somewhere new or you’re in control of where you’re going.”
Made with a mix of white beech and kauri, with leather, brass and string detailing, each boat is unique and has its own name and story to tell. Influenced by her life on the coast and her love of surfing, the boats have a dream-like appeal with a finish that is raw and natural.
“With furniture, a lot of the focus is on the grain of the wood,” she says. “Whereas when you focus more on sculpture and creative work, it’s about the story and the form, and also the spirit of it, which is nice.”
Alongside her boats, she’s also developing a series of limited-edition works: current prototypes include birds, mermaids and tiny whales. “They’re just little things that I vibe on.”
“I leave little pencil marks just to show it hasn’t been popped out of a computer”Elise
Building the business side of her work has been a challenge. “You really do have to think of being creative as a job, and work at it like a job,” she says. “You’re working long hours, you’re in the workshop with overalls and goggles and ear muffs, covered in dust, then you’re going home and replying to emails and lying in bed at 4am trying to work out how to join a boat together – it can really take over your life.”
Fortunately, she’s found plenty of support and friendship from other artists and makers in the Wollongong community. “There’s a really young, creative spirit here and we’re all experiencing the same problems trying to get our work out there and to survive while doing it,” says Elise. “But we’re all in it together, which is really nice.”
Elise’s top tips for starting a creative business:
1. Start now! “Begin small and build it up, and be open to change,” says Elise. “You learn and adapt as you go, and find out what works for you. I had a revelation last year that the only way to get yourself out there is to do really good work under your own name.”
2. Show your work in its best light. “Pay a professional photographer and stylist to take beautiful images of your creations. It will get you more attention and more work.”
3. Be social savvy. “Use social media to get your work out there,” she says. “Build your followers and watch the opportunities pour in. It’s amazing how far it can go.”